Stop Asking Why There s Anything

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1 Erkenn (2012) 77:51 63 DOI /s ORIGINAL ARTICLE Stop Asking Why There s Anything Stephen Maitzen Received: 28 May 2010 / Accepted: 16 July 2011 / Published online: 14 August 2011 Ó Springer Science+Business Media B.V Abstract Why is there anything, rather than nothing at all? This question often serves as a debating tactic used by theists to attack naturalism. Many people apparently regard the question couched in such stark, general terms as too profound for natural science to answer. It is unanswerable by science, I argue, not because it s profound or because science is superficial but because the question, as it stands, is ill-posed and hence has no answer in the first place. In any form in which it is well-posed, it has an answer that naturalism can in principle provide. The question therefore gives the foes of naturalism none of the ammunition that many on both sides of the debate think it does. 1 Introduction Why is there anything, rather than nothing at all? Leibniz called it the first question that should rightly be asked (1714, p. 527), and Heidegger called it not only the fundamental question of metaphysics but the first of all questions (1959, p. 1). Nowadays the question more commonly comes up as a debating tactic used by theists to attack naturalism. Many people apparently regard the question couched in such completely general terms as too profound for natural science to answer. It is unanswerable by science, I ll argue, not because it s profound or because science is superficial but because the question, as it stands, is defective, ill-posed, and hence has no answer. In any form in which it is a well-posed question, it has an answer that naturalism can in principle provide. The question therefore gives the foes of naturalism none of the ammunition that many on both sides of the debate think it does. In short, we ought to stop asking Why is there anything? The utterance is a pseudo-question if construed at face value and, at best, a tendentious way of asking S. Maitzen (&) Department of Philosophy, Acadia University, Wolfville, NS B4P 2R6, Canada

2 52 S. Maitzen other questions that are well-posed and answerable, in principle, by science. Better, then, to ask those other questions instead. My argument applies equally to variants of the same question that one also often sees, such as Why is there something (rather than nothing) (at all)? I don t claim that my argument dissolves every question we might ask about the origin of the cosmos, only that we ought to stop asking various pseudo-questions about it that philosophers and ordinary folk commonly do ask. 2 The Context Naturalistic objectors to theism say that the state of today s science makes us less in need of God to explain the workings of the universe than even Laplace was, who two centuries ago famously claimed no explanatory need for God at all. Naturalists point to the many phenomena we used to attribute to supernatural agents but can now explain scientifically: the change of seasons, the course of a disease, the orbits of planets, and on and on. Their theistic opponents often admit that natural science has discovered not only good piecemeal explanations of the existence of particular phenomena but even good integrated explanations of the existence and operation of entire systems. In this sense, the opponents concede that natural science can answer not only mechanistic how questions but also existential why questions, such as Why are there penguins? or Why is there cancer? Yet they hasten to point out that natural science hasn t explained why there exists anything at all: not specific things or kinds of things but anything in the first place, anything in general. But what, more precisely, is this theistic challenge to naturalism? Pretty clearly the challenge isn t to explain the existence of metaphysically necessary things, since in those cases there s no contrasting state of affairs, no state of affairs in which they don t exist, that could have obtained instead. 1 Rather, the challenge is to explain the existence of contingent things, those things that didn t have to exist, and even then only some contingent things. If the singleton set containing Mars exists, it exists contingently, since its only member exists contingently and sets owe their identity to their members. But if the set {Mars} exists, it exists abstractly, and presumably it s not {Mars} the set but Mars the planet whose existence naturalism is expected to explain. In other words, the challenge to naturalism expressed in the question Why is there anything? doesn t seem to rest on the assumption that theism explains the existence of abstracta better than naturalism does especially because, if there are abstracta, then some of them (say, the integers or the law of noncontradiction) seem both uncreatable and independent of God. Instead, the challenge is meant to invoke only those contingent things that are also concrete, i.e., that exist in spacetime. Properly put, then, the challenge to naturalism is that natural science may do a fine job accounting for particular contingent, concrete things and kinds of things, but it isn t equipped or even meant to tell us why any such things exist at all. 1 Philosophers, including Leibniz himself, typically interpret the first question that should rightly be asked as referring only to those things that could have failed to exist. See van Inwagen (1996, pp ) and O Connor (2008) among the many recent treatments that interpret the question this way.

3 Stop Asking Why There s Anything 53 Many philosophers have taken seriously the theistic challenge Explain why there s anything contingent and concrete at all and have tried to answer it with metaphysical arguments. 2 Other philosophers regard the challenge as well-posed but sufficiently met if natural science can explain the existence of each given contingent, concrete thing. Their spokesman is Hume s Cleanthes: Did I show you the particular causes of each individual in a collection of twenty particles of matter, I should think it very unreasonable, should you afterwards ask me, what was the cause of the whole twenty. This is sufficiently explained in explaining the cause of the parts. 3 This latter group, however, faces opponents who say that a well-posed question remains even if science can provide each of those particular explanations: the question Why are there these contingent, concrete things rather than none at all? Their spokesman is Hume s Demea: The question is still reasonable, why this particular succession of causes existed from eternity, and not any other succession or no succession at all. 4 It s not just philosophers who take the theistic challenge seriously; so do some much more visible contributors to our culture. Even as battle-hardened a critic of theism as comedian Bill Maher, co-producer and star of the irreverent documentary Religulous, is stumped by the challenge and softens his position as a result. Plugging his documentary on an episode of CNN s Larry King Live, Maher confessed the following about the existential questions allegedly answered by theism: [Y]ou just give yourself a headache thinking about them. I mean, if you start thinking about these things, you kind of get down to Why is there anything? Try to ponder that one afternoon if you re not high. See, there may be answers. I m not saying that there isn t something out there. I m not strictly an atheist. An atheist is certain there s no God. [Maher 2008] In the face of the challenge, then, some of the world s most visible atheists think they need to disavow atheism and retreat to mere agnosticism. 3 Dummy Sortals and Pseudo-Questions But they needn t. The question Why is there anything? deserves no reply, because it s ill-posed for a reason that the following example, I believe, helps to 2 Recent examples include Goldstick (1979), Lowe (1996), van Inwagen (1996), Lowe (1998, ch. 12), Grünbaum (2004), Rundle (2004), all of which give non-theistic answers; O Connor (2008), which gives a theistic answer; and Parfit (1998), whose answer is harder to classify. I find it curious that Lowe takes seriously the challenge Why is there anything? given his many persuasive defenses of a sortalist ontology of the kind I m using to dismiss the challenge as ill-posed (e.g., Lowe 1989, ch. 2). Taking the challenge seriously forces Lowe to defend two highly contentious claims: (i) infinitely many sets and natural numbers exist but, remarkably enough, not the empty set or the number zero; (ii) every possible world contains at least one concrete object, even if no concrete object exists in every possible world (Lowe 1998, pp ). For a sortalist like Lowe, (ii) implies that although there needn t exist pens, or plums, or penguins (and so on, for every sortal), it s metaphysically necessary that, at all times, there exists some concrete object or other belonging to some genuine kind. 3 Hume (1779, p. 66). Edwards (1967) endorses this position, as is well known. 4 Hume (1779, p. 64). Burke (1984) endorses this position, citing also Rowe (1975) as endorsing it.

4 54 S. Maitzen make evident. Hold a capped ballpoint pen in your otherwise-empty hand. Now consider the question Exactly how many things are you holding in your hand? You can t answer the question if it s posed in those terms. Are you supposed to count both the pen and its cap? The question, as posed, doesn t imply one answer or the other. (If you remove the cap from the pen and hold both in your hand, why are you now holding two things in your hand if before you held just one?) What about the pen s barrel shell, ink cartridge, and metal tip? What about arbitrary proper parts such as various one-centimeter cross-sections of the barrel shell? You ll get uncountably many such cross-sections if you re allowed to vary their starting or ending boundaries across a continuum of spatial points; countably many (but in principle indefinitely many) such cross-sections if you can vary the boundaries only discretely rather than continuously. Why not also count each of the quarks and electrons that standard physics says constitute the pen and their proper parts too? It might seem as though we can say that either you re holding exactly Q things, where Q is the countable infinity of the rational numbers, or you re holding exactly R things, where R is the uncountable infinity of the reals. We might say that you re holding exactly Q things if the boundaries of things can have only discrete values, or exactly R things if boundaries can vary continuously. But Exactly Q or exactly R is hardly a straight answer to Exactly how many? especially since R, having uncountably more members, is vastly larger than Q. Now, some considerations from mereology suggest that the number of things you re holding can t be as small as Q, even if boundaries vary only discretely. For suppose you re holding exactly Q things. Each of those Q things (and each of its parts) is arguably itself a part in various fusions with other of the Q things you re holding (and their parts), one fusion for each non-empty, non-singleton subset of those things (and parts). But, for Cantorian reasons, those subsets outnumber the Q things you re holding, even if we rule out fusions consisting of already overlapping parts; the number of those subsets has a cardinality of at least R. So you re holding at least R things even if boundaries vary only discretely. If boundaries vary continuously, then you re holding at least R things even before we consider fusions, and thus you re holding many more than R things when we include fusions. Furthermore, if two distinct things can share all of their parts as many would say occurs in the case of a gold ring, for instance, and the lump of gold that constitutes it then you re holding even more things than the fusions you re holding, whether or not boundaries vary continuously. 5 Clearly things are getting out of hand, if you ll excuse the pun. It emerges that the question of exactly how many things you re holding has no answer, or at the very least it has no answer that anyone could reasonably fault naturalism for failing to provide. Even if you allow only three-dimensional objects into your ontology, you d first have to settle whether mereological sums and arbitrary undetached parts ought to count as things you re holding, and if so exactly how many of those ought to count. Even if mereological sums qualify as things you re holding, the question 5 I assume that (a) boundaries can have all the rational values in some interval even if they can have only discrete values in that interval, which in turn assumes that (b) there s no smallest possible change to a boundary. If we deny (b), then the number of things you re holding will be finite even if we include fusions. Again, however, Exactly R or exactly some finite value is hardly a straight answer to Exactly how many? I thank Geoffrey Mason for flagging my assumption of (b).

5 Stop Asking Why There s Anything 55 remains unanswered whether various particular fusions of the pen (or parts of the pen) with any of various atoms of hydrogen elsewhere in the universe also qualify as things you re holding. It certainly seems they could: you re holding all but the tiniest fraction of their mass, and common sense allows that you continue to hold a pen even if an atom of its mass escapes to the surrounding air. (If these sums count, however, then the number of things you re holding positively soars.) But metaphysicians can t agree that these subsidiary questions even have answers, and so at the very least naturalism can t be worse-off than theism for failing to answer them when theism also fails to answer them. The question Exactly how many things are you holding? comes no closer to having an answer if we restrict things to contingent things, concrete things, physical things, material things, cylindrical things, macroscopic things, plastic things, metal things, or indeed things modified in any familiar way. There s a straightforward, if often overlooked, reason why it lacks an answer. The term thing is what David Wiggins (1967, p. 29) calls a dummy sortal, a term that (despite how it may sometimes appear) fails to denote a genuine kind of object object being another dummy sortal, along with individual, item, entity, being, and (in the metaphysical sense) substance. Such terms lack criteria of identity governing the instances that are supposed to fall under them, and hence there can be no correct answer to the question of exactly how many things (objects, individuals, items, entities, beings, substances) occupy a given location or to the question Exactly which things exist? if we construe things in an unrestricted way (Thomasson 2007, p. 113). Even though such dummy sortals function grammatically as count nouns, they don t function logically as count nouns (Lowe 1989, pp. 11, 25), and thus the senselessness of the literally meant question Exactly how many things are you holding? arises from its confusion of grammatical and logical function. Criteria of identity also supply conditions for the persistence of the instances they govern, which explains why you can t answer the question Did the thing(s) you re holding survive the last ten seconds? if you construe it at face value. One potential referent of thing is a collection of matter having perfectly precise spatial boundaries, whose precision therefore means it probably didn t survive even that long. By contrast, the term pen functions both grammatically and logically as a count noun, and so the question Exactly how many pens are you holding? admits of a right answer: one if our common-sense ontology is true, zero if it isn t (if, say, the fuzzy boundaries that common-sense objects must possess are incoherent). Similarly, the questions Exactly which pens exist? and Did the pen you re holding survive the last ten seconds? have right answers depending on whether our common-sense ontology is true and on the empirical facts. 6 6 Although I assume that common-sense objects have fuzzy boundaries if such objects exist at all, the problem I ve raised for the fundamental question doesn t stem from vagueness. Even if all of the objects you re holding have perfectly precise boundaries (in which case, again, you can t hold them for long), the questions Exactly how many objects are you holding? and Why do these objects exist? are too unspecific to admit of answers. Why do I add the qualification that the well-formed counting questions have right answers depending on whether our common-sense ontology is true? Only because, despite my sympathy for theories such as Thomasson s (2007, 2009) that see the truth of our common-sense ontology as a pseudo-issue, I m not yet convinced that sorites arguments against ordinary objects can be rebutted in either of the two main ways Thomasson considers: supervaluationism and Tye-style

6 56 S. Maitzen To be sure, sortalist theories aren t without controversy, but despite the controversy we can see from the foregoing considerations the deep confusion in the literally meant questions Exactly how many things are you holding? and Did the thing(s) you re holding survive the last ten seconds? These considerations, I believe, also show that the question Why is there anything? (i.e., Why is there any thing? ) confuses grammatical and logical function and hence necessarily lacks an answer, even though the question Why are there any pens [or plums, or penguins]? has an answer. Only the latter sentence contains a true sortal, 7 a term whose presence allows the sentence to ask a genuine question. But it s also a question that there s every reason to think natural science can answer. Once we abandon the ill-posed fundamental question in favor of a question that invokes only true sortals, we no longer get the sense that natural science can t in principle answer it. Some people regard the fundamental question as one that science can t answer because all science can do is explain the existence of particular contingent, concrete things by reference to other contingent, concrete things, which always leaves unanswered the question Why are there any contingent, concrete things in the first place; why are there any such things at all? This view of scientific explanation seems to have motivated the logical positivists to reject Why is there anything? as a pseudo-question. But their reason for rejecting it seems to me a less basic reason than the one I m offering here, i.e., that the question s reliance on the dummy sortal thing leaves it indeterminate what s being asked. By the same token, I m also not rejecting the question on the basis of the positivists verificationist criterion of cognitive significance, a widely discredited reason for rejecting a whole range of metaphysical questions. Nor do I think the best reason for rejecting the question as ill-posed is the reason that (so far as I can tell) Wittgenstein gives for rejecting it, namely, that the relevant attitude can t grammatically or sensibly be expressed as a question: Think for example of the astonishment that anything at all exists. This astonishment cannot be expressed in the form of a question, and there is also no answer whatsoever. Anything we might say is a priori bound to be mere nonsense (quoted in Waismann 2005, p. 68). In my view, the astonishment that anything at all exists is senseless even before it prompts or becomes a question, unless anything is replaced by, or interpreted as a substitute for, some true sortal. The same points about grammar and logic show that we can t make the fundamental question any better-posed by recasting it in terms of other nongenuine sortals, such as fact, state of affairs, situation, event, or cause. 8 The question Why have any events at all occurred? for example, is no better-posed Footnote 6 continued indeterminism. It would, however, take me too far afield here to explain exactly why I m not yet convinced. 7 More precisely, a true substance sortal. 8 Marcus (2006) argues persuasively and in detail for the claim that event is not a true sortal. For the reasons Marcus gives in regard to event, I d include cause (as in Demea s why this particular succession of causes, discussed above) among dummy sortals as well. Given the arbitrariness, or interest-relativity, involved in identifying one event but not another as a cause, the question Exactly how many causes occurred in the last hour? looks just as unanswerable as the other pseudo-questions we ve identified.

7 Stop Asking Why There s Anything 57 than the question Exactly how many events occurred in the last hour? By contrast, the questions Exactly how many human births occurred in the last hour? and Why have any human births at all occurred? avoid the meaninglessness that comes from the former questions use of dummy sortals, but they also look susceptible to naturalistic answers. To put matters in the formal mode, the terms thing, object, and so on, don t refer unless they re meant as abstractions from or are covering uses 9 of terms generalizing over what there really is: pens, plums, human births, explosions, and so on. 10 Moreover, I should emphasize, the distinction between grammatical and logical function applies strictly speaking to the concepts corresponding to the English terms thing, object, event, and so on (compare Wiggins 1967). Therefore, my complaint about the fundamental question isn t answered by posing the question in a language using different terms to express those same concepts. The nature of my complaint may become clearer if we imagine the following exchange: A: Why is there anything? B: What do you mean? Are you asking why numbers exist? A: No. If numbers exist, they had to exist. Why is there anything that didn t have to exist? B: So you re asking why there are any contingent things. Well, there are pens, which are contingent things, and here s how pens come to exist A: No! I m not asking why there are any pens. B: All right then. Penguins exist, and they re contingent. Penguins evolved from A: No! I m not asking why there are penguins either. I m asking why there are any contingent things at all. B s answers may seem deliberately obtuse, but they bring out the emptiness of A s questions: A rejects each of B s attempts to supply determinate content to the dummy sortal contingent things, but without such content there s no determinate question being asked. Once contingent things takes on content (e.g., in one of the ways B suggests), the resulting question becomes empirical and scientifically answerable. Or suppose I mention pens, plums, and penguins. You then ask me, Why are there any of the things you just mentioned? but tell me you don t want explanations of the existence of pens, plums, or penguins in particular; instead, you want to know why there are any of the things I just mentioned (with table-pounding emphasis on any ) rather than none at all. Clearly your attitude is perverse: the things I just mentioned is only a covering term for pens, plums, and penguins; it doesn t pick out a category of thing requiring an explanation beyond those I was 9 I owe the label covering use to Thomasson (2007, p. 117, et passim). 10 To use the material mode, there are no (i.e., it is not the case that there are any) things, objects, items, beings, substances, facts, states of affairs, situations, causes, or events as such. In sum, if one insists on answering the question Why are there any things? at face value, the best answer is There aren t any.

8 58 S. Maitzen already prepared to give and you didn t want to hear. Likewise for contingent things and the other dummy sortals I ve discussed: there aren t any contingent things whose explanations outstrip the explanations available for the individuals covered by the covering term contingent things. For the same reason, we can see that the question Why does the Universe exist? taken in the way that objectors to naturalism must intend it, also poses no unanswerable challenge to naturalism, for it amounts to asking (again) Why are there any contingent, concrete things at all? or (again) Why are there these contingent, concrete things rather than none at all? or perhaps Why are there these contingent, concrete things rather than other such things? Once we substitute true sortals ( pens, plums, penguins, etc.) so that those latter questions have more sense than the question Exactly how many contingent, concrete things are you holding in your hand? they seem to admit of naturalistic answers. If, moreover, the explanatory challenge to naturalism should consist of a long disjunctive question Why are there pens, or plums, or penguins, or? then of course naturalism can offer a long disjunctive answer. Someone who finds David Lewis s modal realism plausible might try to revive the question Why does the Universe exist? as a challenge to naturalism by recasting the question as Why does the actual world exist? where the actual world is as Lewis describes it: a concrete object including, or consisting of, everything spatiotemporally related to whoever asks the latter question. In this case no counting problems arise, since there s always exactly one actual world. According to Lewis, however, the question poses no deep problem: of necessity, all possible worlds exist, and actual is only an indexical term referring to the single world inhabited by the speaker. On Lewis s view, Why is our world actual? makes no more sense, or at any rate is no harder to answer, than Why is here here? In responding this way, I don t mean to endorse Lewis s controversial ontology of possible worlds, only to show that someone who does accept that ontology has an easy way of dissolving the question Why does the actual world exist? A different attempt to revive the question might be to ask Why isn t the actual world a world without concrete things? where the questioner rejects Lewis s indexical analysis and uses actual to designate our world rigidly. In one sense, this question also answers itself, or at least it doesn t require the kind of explanation we d require for a contingent fact, because if actual rigidly designates our world, then it s metaphysically necessary that the actual world contains exactly the concrete things our world contains. World-indexed truths are metaphysically necessary truths. But suppose we waive this objection and agree that the question deserves a less trivial answer. In that case, we can reply along the lines of character B in my dialogue: there are (for instance) penguins, which are concrete things, and hence the actual world contains at least some concrete things. Someone more patient (or less confused) than character A might then ask, But why are there penguins? and then we d be off on a chain of naturalistic explanations. Notice that it would add nothing for the questioner to point out that there didn t have to be penguins; no one is claiming that there had to be.

9 Stop Asking Why There s Anything 59 Lastly, consider the attempt to revive the question in a form acceptable to sortalists by recasting it in sortally quantified terms: Why is it that, for at least one sort or kind S, there are things of kind S? 11 Since the challenge to naturalism we re discussing concerns only contingent and concrete things, this question becomes more properly Why is it that, for at least one sort or kind S whose instances are contingent and concrete, there are things of kind S? But even this version of the question fares no better than the others. Hold a pen in your hand and consider the analogous question about counting: For at least one sort or kind S whose instances are contingent and concrete, exactly how many things of kind S are you holding in your hand? You can t in principle answer the question until someone specifies which kind S you should consider. The unqualified request to count makes no sense, and by the same token neither does the demand to explain the existence of contingent and concrete instances of some unnamed sort or kind. Sortalists must of course concede that we can sensibly quantify over sorts no sortalist would want to deny the assertion There are sorts but that concession doesn t imply that every question quantifying over sorts is well-posed. While we can indeed express the fundamental question in terms that quantify over sortals, we don t thereby produce a question that sortalists must regard as substantive. We simply recast the original pseudo-question in sortalist vocabulary. 12 Admittedly I ve spent a lot of time on the topic of exact counting, but only because it s illustrative: only because it clearly illustrates the senselessness that arises when we try to use dummy sortals as if they were genuine sortals. It s not that I regard counting as especially relevant to answering, or even dissolving, the fundamental question. Nor do I hold the clearly false view that only concepts captured by count nouns can be genuine sortals; so can concepts captured by mass nouns, a topic I ll return to shortly. My point has been that the content of a question changes significantly depending on which (if any) sortals it uses, regardless of whether the question asks Exactly how many exist? or instead Why do any exist? Recall why no one can answer the literally meant question Exactly how many things are you holding in your hand? : the word things has no determinate reference at all. The counting problem we ve examined arises not because the things we re asked to count are too numerous, or too small, or too fuzzy in their boundaries. Instead, the problem arises because it s indeterminate just what things we re supposed to count in the first place. The same problem arises, therefore, when we re asked to explain why there are any of those things at all: any of which things? What s the content of the question being asked? It has no content until we replace referentially indeterminate words with genuine sortals. The question Why are there penguins? 11 I owe this objection to an anonymous reviewer for Erkenntnis. 12 In a similar vein, Thomasson (2009, pp ) criticizes the attempt to recast natural-language pseudo-questions in terms that ostensibly avoid dummy sortals by using logical quantifiers and identity instead: Why are there any things? for example, becomes Why is it the case that Ax(x = x)? Thomasson gives various reasons for thinking that the attempt fails, among them that all definitions of the quantifiers sooner or later refer to things, objects, individuals, or some such, and hence these reformulations of general existence questions smuggle in the dummy sortals that deprived the original questions of determinate sense in the first place.

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